Jack McDevitt’s 1986 debut novel The Hercules Text is a (then) near-future First Contact story. The Hercules Text was the seventh novel in the Third Ace Science Fiction Specials series, edited by Terry Carr.
Personnel functionary Harry Carmichael has neither the love of his soon to be ex-wife, nor the respect of the scientists he provides with invaluable administrative services. He can at least look forward to distraction from his personal problems. Humanity is about to be contacted by extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Humanity may be about to go extinct.
The Hercules Project uses SKYNET1 to monitor Alpha Altheis, an X‑ray pulsar in the Hercules constellation. The pulsar is anomalous in a number of respects, most notably that the system somehow formed in the depths of intergalactic space, but is not otherwise especially notable. At least not until the day the pulsar suddenly and inexplicably goes silent.
The silence is brief. When the pulsar restarts, emissions now include what are clearly signals. Whoever is responsible for the signals clearly intends for them to be comprehended by strangers, as the initial messages are a primer to facilitate communication. Due to the distances involved — one and half million light-years — two-way communication is not practical, at least not for the humans, for whom the time lag is longer than the lifespan to date of their species.
The fact of the signal alone has tremendous implications. Not only are humans no longer the only known technological species — humans can be assured that at least one species not only managed to survive all the pitfalls of advanced technology, but that the aliens’ technological mastery includes achievements (like manipulating stars) that are for humans the stuff of pure science fiction.
The Hercules Text is a cornucopia of novel information. Its value is underlined when one section of the Text gives a blueprint for a new, clean source of energy that is powerful enough to make anti-ballistic missile defense practical. So far only the Americans are in a position to make use of this, though the fact of the info has leaked. The Soviets begin to panic at the prospect of the Americans being the only ones with a functioning ABM defense. If the Cold War is to stay cold, the participants must be close to equal in capacity for offense and defense. The new tech will upset this delicate balance.
But there’s more. As more advanced texts are deciphered, the scientists realize that the species or entity sending the message has an alarming blind-spot. If an intelligent species receiving the message is sensible, all is well; if it isn’t, the recipients may not survive. What are the odds that recipients are sensible?
Humans are clearly not sensible. If all the messages were to leak, the likely lifespan of the human species might be weeks or days.
If the only humans who could decipher the signal were the Project Hercules scientists, they could simply remain quiet. Unfortunately, by the time the full extent of the hazard is apparent, the world has learned about Hercules. What, then, is the staff of the Hercules Project to do?
The characters arrive at an explanation for the signal’s structure that makes sense to them, although clearly it cannot be verified. To avoid spoilers, it comes down to a characteristic of the sender that humans very much do not share, one that makes it unlikely that the aliens will foresee complications like the Cold War. However, the evidence also supports the hypothesis that the sender doesn’t care how many recipients reduce their home world to an incandescent, baseball-sized neutronium sphere. It may even be aiming at such outcomes.
Certain aspects of the novel reflect the era in which it was written (the 1980s). There’s the mismatch (from our perspective) of stupendous space engineering and hilariously underpowered computers. This may seem odd to younger readers, but I can assure them that such mismatches commonly feature in the SF of this period. It is also typical of the period that the Cold War2 is assumed to be an enduring feature of the future.
What is not typical: the novel’s snipes at Vatican 2. Is McDevitt a Catholic traditionalist?
The Hercules Text is a surprisingly meat-and-potatoes offering from the Third Ace Science Fiction Specials series. The prose is pure Analog and the character are what might charitably call “iconic,” fleshed out just enough to perform their desired roles. The Hercules Text touches on points that other First Contact novels of the period bring up, without adding much to the discourse. It’s not a terrible SF novel but it is also not especially memorable.
McDevitt is one of the Ace Specials success stories. He has been prolific and his novels are clearly popular enough for publishers to continue acquiring them, something that is very much not true for authors of a similar vintage. Additionally, McDevitt has earned a respectable quantity of award nominations. This novel seems unremarkable, but given McDevitt’s subsequent success, perhaps I am overlooking something to which other readers respond.
1: No relation.
2: The Cold War was a long struggle between the US, its allies and client states on one side, and Russia and its clients on the other. I know, I know, that seems quaint and outdated.